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Foreign Language Teaching Tips, Part 3

26 Oct

Feeling intimidated about teaching your kids a foreign language at home?  In this 3-part series, I offer you ideas on how to make language learning fun and effective, even if you’re not fluent yourself.

8.  Find a community of people to speak with.

Really learning a language requires using it.  Are there native speakers of your TL in your area? Find ways to be around them, whether it’s volunteering for work with Latinos, frequenting a Mediterranean restaurant, or joining the monthly meet-up of French expats in your city.  If there aren’t any, or you’re shy about striking up friendships in these ways, create a meet-up of your own with other people who want to learn the same language or participate in language exchanges with people in other countries that take place over Skype.

9.  Have them read stuff they’re interested in in the target language–even if it’s way over both your heads.

I can still remember curling up in the afternoons with a crisp copy of Alo!  magazine and taking in all the latest gossip about the Spanish novela actors.  Did I know what they were saying? Ha!  Was I pronouncing anything correctly?  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall then and gotten some cheap laughs!  But it made me curious.  It made me look up words.  It made me wonder who those people were (for better or worse).  It could have been something else, like astronomy, or a novel, or fashion.  But there’s something about learning a new word in the context of text that interests you that really makes it stick.  And something about reading it in a real-live product of that culture that makes it more exciting than translating the words in a text book.

10.  Try to teach things they care about saying first.

Again, the best way to get someone to remember words is to get them to use them in social situations.  They can only do that if they have a use for them in social situations.  That’s why I think it’s important to teach people how to say things about themselves and what they think very quickly.  They don’t need to know all the sports right away, just the ones they play.  They need to know how to to say “I like” and “I am” right off the bat.  They need not just to be able to tell that they’re in sixth grade and have blonde hair, but that they love reggae music and are extremely loyal.  It may not be possible to cover all that in a first lesson, but those are the words that should be sought out first.

11.  Use music copiously.

Find music in your TL that suits your style: pop, rock, folksy or something traditional from that culture.  If you don’t want to invest in CDs, load up a playlist of videos on Youtube to listen to throughout the day or invest in songs one by one using iTunes.  Choose ones that really speak to you and stick in your head.  Then get the lyrics from the Internet with their translation.  You’ll be amazed how much more you remember the words and practice the right pronunciation when it’s carried on music.  And when you learn the meaning of those words in a specific context such as an impassioned ballad or catchy dance number, you’ll recall the meanings of words for years to come–and even where you first learned a word.  You may come across grammar constructions you don’t understand yet, and that’s okay.  You’ll take stock of it for later when it will come in handy, or you may be inspired to go figure out why they conjugated a verb a certain way in a song.

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Foreign Language Teaching Tips, Part 2

25 Oct

Feeling intimidated about teaching your kids a foreign language at home?  In this 3-part series, I offer you ideas on how to make language learning fun and effective, even if you’re not fluent yourself.

4.  Focus on getting ideas across.  Don’t be a stickler for correction.

People are SO self-conscious when they’re learning a language.  They are stepping way out of their comfort zone.  They’re afraid they sound stupid or said something profane instead of what they meant to say.  Generally, correcting them when they are feeling this way shuts them down more than helps them.  (I’m not talking about advanced students when I say this.)  Your role as the teacher-mom is to highlight what they were able to get across to you.  Praise them for all their efforts.  You ask how many and they say cinco, when there were really dos?  Your job is to pick up on how great it is that they remembered the word dos!  Are they floundering for the words?  Don’t leave them hanging, especially in front of other people.  Throw them a lifeline and just let them repeat, even if they can’t produce the answer on their own yet.  Some people just need to hear new words more times before they can regurgitate them.

5.  Use the target language to complete tasks together, rather than focusing on book learning.

This is one reason why I think schools may fail at teaching languages.  They are geared to need to have quantitative and objective measures of progress.  They also don’t want to allow a class to become a blow-off.  Quizzes, copying sentences, tests, multiple choice, etc. are all very conducive to quantifying and making things objective, but they are probably the worst way to make someone remember new and strange words.

Think about how you learned your first language.  Did you look at it in writing and memorize lists of words?  No!  You learned to speak–and quite well–anywhere from 3 to 5 years before you learned to read.  Did your parents really come down on you as a 2-year-old when you said “pasketi” instead of “spaghetti”.  Hopefully not!  They probably thought it was really adorable and cooed over you and repeated what they recognized out of what you said.  This should be a clue for how to teach second languages.

In my opinion, exposing people to the written form of a foreign language (especially in the Latin alphabet) just causes them to superimpose their existing phonetic system onto those new words–in other words to say them wrong.  I think it’s better to let people hear native speakers and to mimic them and babble the new words to themselves for a long time before you show them how things are spelled.  They have a better chance of sounding native this way.  You might be surprised to know that the “d”, “p” or “t” of Spanish are not pronounced exactly the same as they are in English, though they’re very similar.  The letter “j” in jalapeño sounds nothing like in English, but if you see it on paper before you hear it a lot of times, you will think “English j” when you see that word.

The other reason for avoiding bookwork and instead doing activities goes back to the social aspect of language again.  One cooking session where all the new foods are taught and you ask your student over and over again to “pass the queso, pass the sal, pass the tomate” will drill those words in better than 5 hours of seat work.  Do crafts together and use the words for paper, scissors, glue, crayons.  Play a sport together and use the words for points, ball, run, throw, catch.  Go shopping together and use the words for shirt, pants, shoes.

6.  Argument is not just for the sake of argument.

Another option, when you can’t physically complete a task together, is to divide into teams (even one-on-one is okay) and debate a really serious question:  an ethical dilemma or a triage question.  A triage question is one where there are limited resources that have to be allocated to too many people.  For example, there is one heart available for a transplant.  Who should get it: the 18-year-old juvenile delinquent or the 83-year-old World War II veteran who’s done community service all his life?  Discuss.  People get really impassioned about their P.O.V., and hopefully, they will be able to use the TL to get some of that across.

7. Study pronunciation, but do it separately from speaking time–and don’t dwell on it!

When babies learn their first language, the first step they go through is babbling.  They start out producing a wide range of sounds, but they quickly pick up on which ones the people in their lives use, through hearing them frequently and through their parents reinforcing those sounds by praising them and repeating after them when they make a sound that the parent recognizes.  Then, the baby tosses out all the other sounds and soon limits her repertoire to just what those around her use.

In babbling, babies are free and uninhibited to experiment with the way their tongue, lips, palate, throat, and nose can be used to make sounds.  It’s a sort of “constructive play” for speech.  Older students aren’t usually encouraged to babble and are usually pretty self-conscious about doing so. Ideally, though, even older students would spend some time practicing the formation of sounds in the TL.  Just like practicing a piece of music on the piano, it takes rehearsal to be able to make our body parts land in new and unfamiliar position.

The first factor in doing that successfully is being shown how to produce the sounds right.  Sometimes it’s hard to do this because we are so unaccustomed to them.  For example, two letters in Arabic use what’s called a glottal stop, which means you close up your throat low down in it to stop the air, something that we’re not used to in English.  (At least, we’re not used to calling it a letter of it’s own.)  It required a lot of practice and asking native speakers to physically show me how they make that sound in order for me to get it even close to right.  Other times, the student doesn’t even notice that there’s a difference in positioning of the mouth, tongue or other parts in the TL from their native language because the sounds are deceptively similar.  The teacher needs to point this out.

The second factor is having the opportunity to practice the new sounds in a non-threatening setting.  This is something that gets overlooked or improperly emphasized in a language class, many times.

  • Students should be encouraged to practice new sounds when they have time alone, so they can feel uninhibited about sounding weird or doing it wrong or accidentally getting spittle everywhere.  After the sound has been modeled for them in a detailed, correct, slow-motion way, you can give them a few words as examples to practice with.  If I were trying to teach the difference between “r” and “rr” in Spanish, I might give the contrast between “perro” (dog) and “cara” (face) and tell the student to say the two words to themselves as correctly as possible many times before I see them next.
  • During the time when students are trying to speak (i.e., answer questions, describe how they feel, what they want, etc.), pronunciation should mostly be left alone.  Why? Because correcting them at that time will frequently cause self-consciousness and unnecessary interruption of their thought process.  On the other hand, their pronunciation will gradually become better during speaking time if they have been practicing it separately.
  • When you’re focusing on pronunciation while you’re with your kids during language time, create a playful, fun environment where it feels okay to not get it spot on every time.
  • Exaggerate the sounds a bit and liken them to something the student may already know or have heard of before.  To use Arabic as an example again, there are three different H’s.  This was bewildering to me until someone said, “Think of one of them as the soft, breathy H.  Think of the other one as the sound you make after you take a long sip of refreshing soda.  Close your throat around it a little.”  I knew exactly how to sound like I’d been sipping soda, and that helped me get it right!

 

Foreign Language Teaching Tips, Part 1

24 Oct

Feeling intimidated about teaching your kids a foreign language at home?  In this 3-part series, I offer you ideas on how to make language learning fun and effective, even if you’re not fluent yourself.

1.   Learn as a family so you can use it as a family.

Language is intrinsically social.  You’re supposed to use it with the other human beings.  Perhaps it’s not such a coincidence then that our brains absorb it best by social use.  Not by book learnin’.  Not even from a DVD.  When the whole family learns new vocabulary that they can use for tasks they actually need to do, they have a shared knowledge base with which to operate in real-world situations.  Especially in a homeschooling family, they are together frequently.  One person can remind the others of words they forgot by using them.  Sometimes it’s awkward to overcome the ingrained pattern of using English.  It might feel a little fake at first, but in many ways, a family is an ideal group in which to learn a language.

2.  Saturate their environment with the target language.

  • Label objects around the house.
  • Play the kind of music they like in the target language.
  • Read them children’s books.  (Don’t know how to pronounce it all?  That’s ok.  Just look at them together, tell most of the story in English, but mix in several key words in the TL.)
  • Study newspapers.  (Have a dictionary handy and don’t be afraid to write all over the newspaper).
  • Food–Make their favorite foods together, especially if they are part of the target culture.  Use your vocabulary as you do.)
  • Movies–watch them together, with or without subtitles.

Remember, a lot of what draws a person into a language is having a shared “cultural capital” with the people who speak that language.  Think of how nostalgic you get when talking with people of your generation about a kids’ show you all loved or a favorite candy you used to eat ridiculous amounts of, for example.  Provide those experiences that give them something in common with people of the culture.

3.  DO let them mix languages until they can speak all in the target language.

There are various theories about how people learn language best:

  • One says that what people need is phrases they can use.  (Thus, the pocket phrase books for use on vacation.)
  • Another says they ought to learn lots of lists of vocabulary and perfect their grammar, and then they will be able to go out and use it well later.
  • Another that has held a lot of sway in recent times is the Total Immersion method.  This is what we used to use when I taught at Berlitz (although there were other parts to it and they called it the Berlitz Method there).  While my student was in a session with me, we weren’t supposed to speak any English (unless I was teaching them English), and I wasn’t supposed to ask any questions the answers for which I hadn’t already taught the vocabulary.  The idea is that if a person is around the language in an uninterrupted manner for long enough and not allowed to use their native language as a crutch, they will kind of learn the target language (TL) by osmosis, or at least have no alternative but to use.  The trouble with this is that there is another alternative: be very frustrated and give up.  If you’re not living in another country, that is an option, and it’s one that people frequently choose.
  • Another school of thought says that they mixing of languages that bilingual people often do, called “code switching,” is bad because it can cause the person to apply the grammar of one language to the other language or to use words that sound the same in both languages but don’t really mean the same thing (false friends or false cognates).

I agree that people need a lot of exposure to the TL and that they do “absorb” some things “in the background of their minds,” as it were.  I also do agree that the long-term goal of language learning to get to a point where you don’t have to code switch to get your point across, unless there is no cultural equivalent for what you want to say.

However, almost the only short-term goal is to make the student feel good about what they can communicate in the TL–yes, even at the expense of correct pronunciation, grammar, and purity of the language.  If that means your child can only say, “Mom, when’s almuerzo (lunch) going to be ready?” instead of saying it all in Spanish, don’t let anybody tell you that’s bad.  I think the best bet–and the one people naturally tend toward–is to weave their new word acquisitions into their existing vocabulary.

How to Tackle Foreign Language

5 Oct

Source: Wouter Verhelts

Almost everyone I meet wants their child to learn a foreign language.  The reasons are different: Some people think it will improve their children’s job prospects, others that it will make their child more cultured or empathetic. Still others want their kids to be prepared for the mission field.

I’ve been on various ends of the “language business” for a long time, starting with teaching foreign students and refugees English, teaching English and Spanish to corporate ex-pats and their families, proofreading, translating, private tutoring…you name it.  I’ve also been a student of a number of languages, both formally and on my own, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Arabic, and Farsi.  (That does not mean I know them all!)  My experiences from these various vantage points have given me some strong and sometimes unconventional ideas about how to go about teaching or learning a foreign language successfully.  I’ve been teaching French for our co-op, a new experience for me.  I’m going to post about what we’ve been learning, both because I think it’s of general interest and because our co-op members need a place to access all the new things we’ve been learning.  That’s got me thinking about how to approach foreign language in general, so I’m going to post a little series with tips on how to be successful at learning or teaching a language.

Why? Why Not?

Foreign languages are one of those areas that easily fall prey to trends, so it’s important to evaluate what your reasons really are.  Here are some bad reasons:

  • All the other kids are learning it
  • It’s the latest thing
  • You think it’s very posh to know XYZ language
  • YOU wish you had learned it, but at least you can live vicariously
  • You did learn it, and goshdarnit, your child will too (This does not apply if the language in question is your or your parents’ native language!)

Here’s the best reason of all: your child likes it.

Now, not every child shows an aptitude for foreign languages, and he or she may not like the one you think is really important or beautiful to learn.  But if you allow them to be exposed to several languages in their early years, or if you follow their lead on what cultures they show an interest in, they may just realize that there is a language out there for themThey may have hated your idea of learning French, but Japan and everything related to it may fascinate them.

Gotta Love It

The truth is that emotion is SUCH a powerful factor in learning a language well.  You really have to have either positive feelings about the “target culture” or a very strong practical motivation to learn the language (such as getting by on a daily basis or caring deeply about someone who speaks that language).  So, while you may think French is great (and therefore you might be capable of learning French very well), your son or daughter may have little potential to do well in French and all the possibility in the world of becoming natively fluent in Japanese because he or she loves it so much!    When it comes to foreign language, it really is better to learn the “wrong” language like the back of your hand than the “right” one very poorly.

The exceptions to this are Latin and Greek because we learn them largely to train our minds in logic and because they unlock clues of the English language.  However, I strongly believe it’s important to learn at least one living language in addition to Latin or Greek–and even Latin and Greek can be made exciting and relevant.

There’s no accounting for why some people seem intrinsically fascinated with a particular foreign culture.  For me, it was Latin America, and it began when I was 12 years old for 2 reasons:

  1. I knew a girl my age who knew no English and I wanted to talk to her.
  2. I went on a mission trip to Mexico, for which I also had to take a short course in Spanish.

Most of my Spanish is self-taught, though several college courses and living with my Spanish-speaking husband helped me polish it.  The reason I was able to achieve near-native fluency without ever having lived in a Spanish-speaking country is that I live in a place where I have access to the language and, more importantly, I sought it out relentlessly because I was so interested in it.  Today, with Skype, Youtube, online language exchanges, and the ever-growing influence of internationalism in our backyards, it’s easier than ever to do this in more places, even if you don’t live in a large city.

Plan of Attack

You may be daunted at the thought of teaching your kids a foreign language, especially if you haven’t yet learned one very well.  You needn’t be!  Just keep in mind that the goals are communicating and enjoying–not necessarily correctness–and that whatever you teach them is gravy.  Sadly, schools routinely turn out students that have studied a language for 2+ years but can barely formulate a “Where is the bathroom?” when they need one.  Why is that?  You have the advantage of a built-in community that is together for much of the time and completes daily tasks together.  You have the opportunity to create a much more organic language-learning experience than a classroom can provide.  Go for it!

Be sure to check back soon for 11 specific tips, straight from the front lines, on how to be successful in teaching your kids a foreign language!  Have any experiences? questions? tips of your own to share?  By all means, leave them in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you!